We have known for a while that physical activity, in general, helps keep us healthy as we age, but new research has discovered that running is especially helpful. People who run regularly have longer telomeres, which are small caps of protein at the ends of each chromosome. Since these caps are responsible for protecting our DNA, longer caps are desirable, but, unless you take action to prevent it, telomeres shrink over time.

The problem is that cell division causes smart parts of the cap to be sheared off. By the time a cell has divided numerous times, the telomere has become too short to effectively protect the DNA. This exposes the DNA to damage, which results in age-related illnesses and degradation.

German cardiologist Christian Werner released findings in 2009 that physical activity helped to keep telomeres long and healthy. Continuing his research over the past decade, Dr. Werner released the results of a new study that confirmed regular aerobic exercise helped protect telomeres. To conduct the study, a team led by Werner examined 124 subjects, looking at both the length of telomeres in their white blood cells and the enzyme responsible for keeping the telomeres in good condition.

Each subject was a healthy middle-aged adult, though they were chosen because they normally didn’t practice physical exercise in their personal lives. The 124 subjects were separated into four test groups. The first group was assigned to engage in regular brisk walking and jogging. The second group participated in high-intensity interval training. The third group took part in regular strength and resistance training. The last group was identified as the control group, which means they weren’t required to add any physical activity to their daily routines.

The researchers uncovered some unexpected results. While every group that participated in some physical exercise enjoyed health benefits from the activities, only the first two groups showed any changes related to the telomeres. The length of their telomeres were considerably longer, while the levels of telomerase, which is the enzyme that produces longer telomeres, was heightened. The weight lifters still exhibited shorter telomeres.

While physical activity of any kind is beneficial, this research suggests that running and high intensity interval training is especially beneficial in staving off age-related illnesses. Running and other aerobic exercises may be essential, especially for people with higher risks of developing degenerative illnesses as they grow older.